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As the 2012 Conservation In Action Tour in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta wrapped up a lunch stop and the Conservation Technology Expo at the Mill Creek Gin just north of Clarkston, MS, a light rain that had been briefly pitter-pattering on the facilities’ metal roof morphed into an intense, deafening roar.
Attendees of the trip, which included both local and national producers as well as ag retailer representatives and a variety of extension experts and environmental officials, all immediately flocked to the open Gin doors, enthralled by the prolific rainstorm that was providing much needed moisture to nearby dry fields of corn, soybeans and cotton, among other crops.
As the above example goes to show, growers and ag retailers these days are all concerned with water – both quality and quantity – so here are five takeaways from the 2012 Conservation In Action Tour:
1. Water Quality Monitoring
There is no denying the dramatic increase in farm nutrients found in U.S. waters over the past 50 years, and with an estimated 43% of the phosphorus and 66% of the nitrogen found in the Northern Gulf Hypoxia region coming from crop inputs, making sure the water that enters one of the country’s largest and most crucial watersheds is free of excess nutrients is incredibly important. At Stovall Farms, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in concert with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), has installed water quality monitoring stations around the property, capturing valuable data on nutrient levels in the waters that could potentially leave owner Pete Hunter’s 4,800-acre operation and enter the regions alluvial aquifer before heading downstream to the Gulf.
“We’re trying to tell a story here in the Delta, and that story is: What’s going on with our ground water, and how can we address water quality via best management practices,” says Matt Hicks, USGS Aquatic Ecologist. “In my opinion, it’s going to be monitoring that will make this story a success story, and we need to give growers the data to make proper water management decisions.”
2. Water Quantity Also Crucial
In a region where agricultural operations reportedly consume between 90%-95% of the available groundwater, ensuring a supply of not only clean, but plentiful fresh water for future generations is top priority. Growers throughout the Delta are taking this issue to heart, as witnessed when attendees toured the 20-acre tail-water recovery reservoir on Stovall Farms, which allows the operation to capture and reuse nearly all the water and nutrients it sprays on fields. Not only does the reservoir allow for the recycling of water and nutrients, it also allows for an additional filtering of the water before it is reapplied to the field. Although Hunter and other growers in attendance admit it can be a tough decision for a producer to make, as in Hunter’s case it required removing 20 acres of farmable land from production, the benefits of installing a recovery reservoir are quite tangible. Early NRCS and USGS estimates point to a 75% reduction in overall groundwater use over a ten year period, as well as a 50% reduction in run off, and Hunter estimated that it had already saved his operation by reducing energy costs 3/5ths.
“This is a major commitment for the land owner and a long term investment in the land, and it comes at a great cost to the grower” says Hunter of the tail-water reservoir. “But the laws of farming have changed, and we’ve got to hold on to what we’ve got. We’ve got to keep everything that we have on the farm, on the farm.”
Adds NRCS area engineer Paul Rodrigue, “Most conservation in the Delta simply comes down to preventing runoff. In that regard, these tail-water recovery systems are a win-win-win situation – they address both water quality and water conservation, and they help reduce hypoxia, making sure those nutrients aren’t ending up in the Gulf.”
3. Expanding Irrigation
According to Charlotte Bird of the Mississippi DEQ Surface Water Division, prior to the 1970s irrigation was extremely limited in the Delta. Then, in 1979, an increase in rice production, to the tune of 340,000 acres in Mississippi alone, dramatically changed that. As anyone with knowledge of rice production can tell you, rice requires water, and lots of it. Factor in the variability of the regions rainfall, half of which falls during the months of December and January, when no crops are in the ground, and one gets the picture of just how important irrigation best practices are to sustainable agriculture in the region. Today, estimates peg the percentage of the Delta’s 3 million acres at 80% irrigated, and the increase in water supply has allowed many in the region to switch from cotton to corn, increasing profit margins. “We cannot grow corn in the Delta without irrigation with the variability of our rains,” says Bird.
Travis Satterfield, a producer from nearby Benoit, MS, agrees. “We as producers have come to depend on irrigation in the Delta, so it is very important to continue expanding this practice,” he said. “Conservation is key when it comes to water use here.”
4. Restoration of Coastal Ecosystems
During the third and final stop on the tour, attendees perused one of the more unique farming operations in Williams Farm, a progressive, research-friendly farm where “soybeans, corn and cotton production co-exist with white-tail deer, bobwhite quail and native waterfowl.” At Williams, 48% of the land acres produce row crops while 30% support hardwood reforestation. Herbaceous wetlands, conservation buffers, forest and herbaceous drains make up the balance.
John Gruchy, coordinator of the Private Lands Habitat Program within the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), consulted with owner Trey Cooke, who also serves as executive director of the Delta Farmers Advocating Resource Management (Delta F.A.R.M.), creating and implementing wildlife conservation strategies that provide multiple benefits. For example, the many native warm season grass buffers installed between fields provide a habitat for both game and non-game species, such as pollinators, and they also have shown use in biofuel production as well as water quality improvement.
“With 50% of North American birds passing through the Mississippi Alluvial Valley yearly, and 70% off all North American Mallard, we’ve got to make sure there are suitable habitats for wildlife,” says Gruchy.
Now, the Delta ranks 12th nationwide in Conservation Reserve Program Acres and 1st in the country in forest and buffer acres. But it’s not just aviary animals that producers are interested in.
“The Mississippi Delta at one time was the premier habitat for black bear,” informs Gruchy. “When Teddy Roosevelt wanted to shoot a bear back in 1902, he came to the Mississippi Delta to do it.”
According to the MDWFP, there is evidence that black bear populations are slowly increasing in Mississippi, and recent efforts by the group, alongside Farm Bill programs like the Wetlands Reserve Incentive Program, have been a catalyst. In March 2012, a Mississippi NRCS report estimated the state’s black bear populations at 120 bears, an increase of over 50% from a 2006 count, a sign that Delta growers are successfully stewarding their lands as these discerning species return to their native habitats.
5. Continued Collaboration
As you have probably already noticed, partnerships and collaboration have gone a long way in increasing growers’ awareness of conservation best practices in the Delta. Between the MDEQ, MDWFP, Mississippi River Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force (MRGMWNTF), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Delta F.A.R.M., Delta Council, NRCS, Mississippi State University Extension offices, the Gulf of Mexico Alliance, the Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission and the USGS, as well as the efforts of private organizations such as the CTIC, Syngenta, Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, The Fertilizer Institute, Mosaic and the National Farmers Union, many, many groups have had a hand in shining a light on preservation and conservation efforts throughout the region. This is a trend NRCS Chief Dave White would like to see continued nationally.
“Something is bringing these groups together, and that something is conservation, and I think it is just perfect,” says White. “If I had my druthers, these programs and partnerships in the Delta would be expanded throughout the country. The fate of the environment will hinge on our ability to come together and help educate and guide millions of growers to make the right decisions.”